“I got it, Pops,” the younger porter says. “Everything’s under control.”
“Just keep a smile on your face,” the older porter responds.
In “Pullman Porter Blues,” which opens Nov. 23 at Arena Stage, playwright Cheryl L. West, examines the history and the hardship behind those brilliant smiles.
In 1870, industrialist George Pullman began to hire former slaves to provide service on the soon-to-be famous luxury sleeping cars he had designed.
The “Pullman porters,” as they were known, became legendary for dispensing impeccable service to high-paying passengers — smiling all the while.
They smiled even as they stood on their feet sometimes for more than 20 hours, even as their already low pay was docked for any missing service items.
“There was a lot of story, a lot of pain and a lot of hardship behind those smiles,” West said.
The porters were required to work 400 hours each month or 11,000 miles, whichever came first. In 1926, porters were paid just $72.50 a month, plus tips. Out of that pay, they had to cover expenses including polish for their shoes, food on the road and lodging at segregated boarding houses.
The steady smile was a requirement listed in the 127 pages of Pullman porter rules.
Porters were to “provide service with a smile. To have passengers think they were most important,” West said. “It was important to satisfy your customer. That is what Pullman knew. But porters knew by smiling and providing impeccable service . . . the tip would be bigger.
“That is part of the duality. That is part of the smile,” West continued. “It says, ‘I’m here to serve you even if you are a jerk. I’m still going to smile.’ It meant a tip, and a tip provided for their families.”
West, who was born and raised in Chicago, remembers riding a Pullman train to Mississippi with her grandmother at age 4 or 5 (the trains ran until the late 1960s). She became fascinated by the porters’ smiles.
“I remember my grandmother flirting with them as they came down the aisle,” West recalled during an interview from Seattle, where the play premiered to enthusiastic reviews. “They seemed to know every person’s name.” With a child’s innocence, West decided then “that the porters must smile all the time because they were so happy to ride the train every day.”
When West, an acclaimed playwright — “Jar the Floor,” “Holiday Heart,” “Birdie Blue,” “Before It Hits Home” — sat down to write this new work, she was inspired by the stories she had heard from her great-grandfather, who worked on postal trains. She also remembered the smiles of the Pullman porters.